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April 24, 2010
Playoff Prospectus
Defending the Home Court

by Kevin Pelton

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at Portland 96, Phoenix 87 (Series tied 2-2)
Pace: 84.7
Offensive Ratings: Portland 115.8, Phoenix 100.4

It may not be sexy, or even as interesting as the other storylines, but pick-and-roll defense wins games in the modern NBA. The Portland Trail Blazers demonstrated that in Saturday afternoon's 96-87 series-evening victory over the Phoenix Suns at the Rose Garden.

Much of the discussion after Phoenix's back-to-back lopsided victories was about Jason Richardson's hot shooting. Richardson totaled 71 points in Games Two and Three, making better than 68 percent of his attempts from the field and hitting 12 three-pointers. Richardson was the big beneficiary of the way Portland trapped the pick-and-roll, leaving an open shooter on the weak side of the floor, and the Blazers' weak defensive rotations.

In the first half, Portland tightened up and closed out better, while Richardson missed some good looks. He shook free for 11 points and a pair of triples in the third quarter. But things changed in a major way down the stretch when the Blazers altered their defensive strategy. Nate McMillan put Nicolas Batum on Steve Nash, a matchup last seen for an extended period in the final quarter of the Blazers' Game One win. Shortly thereafter, LaMarcus Aldridge was assigned Amar'e Stoudemire. That allowed Portland to switch the pick-and-rolls between Nash and Stoudemire, since Batum is big enough to battle Stoudemire down low and Aldridge is as good as any post player in the league at defending guards on the perimeter. Meanwhile, Marcus Camby was available to serve as a help defender.

Camby replaced Juwan Howard at the 5:32 mark of the fourth quarter with the Blazers clinging to an 82-79 lead after a pair of Aldridge free throws. On the ensuing possession, Nash threw the ball out of bounds against Aldridge's pressure. Phoenix scored on its next two possessions, but just once over the following seven as Portland extended its advantage to eight points with 1:05 left on the clock.

Richardson, who played the game's final 6:26 after replacing backup Leandro Barbosa, did not score or even attempt a shot in that period, since his defender was able to stay home. The Suns mustered just 15 fourth-quarter points, shooting 5-of-16 from the field and missing all four of their three attempts. And Nash committed three of Phoenix's six turnovers in the frame.

For the game, the Suns put up barely a point per possession after posting Offensive Ratings of 135.4 and 123.4 in Games Two or Three, putting the onus back on Alvin Gentry to make adjustments. After the game, Gentry pointed to pace as a key factor. The game's first two quarters were played at around a 90-possession pace, but after halftime it slowed to an 80-possesion crawl. Throughout, the Blazers stepped up their transition defense, holding Phoenix to four fast-break points.

Portland probably won't be able to switch the pick-and-roll for 48 minutes. The more the Suns see that kind of defense, the better they do against it. By switching up looks, however, the Blazers can create confusion. One adjustment Phoenix made late in the game was having Channing Frye set the screen for Nash instead of Stoudemire, something we could see more of in Game Five. Frye has quietly had a weak series against his former team, however, shooting 4-of-21. And because he's not a major threat as a roll man, preferring instead to pop back beyond the three-point line, Portland will probably be comfortable trapping instead of switching those picks. The one time Frye did run the pick-and-pop, Camby was able to poke the ball away from Nash and create a timely turnover.

Another concern for the Suns has to be the continued uneven performance of the team's bench, which was excellent late in the regular season. Goran Dragic was able to give Gentry just three minutes in the second half before the coach got Nash back in the game. Louis Amundson did not play at all in the second half, with Stoudemire going nearly the entire way in the middle. Jared Dudley was quiet in his 18 minutes of action, leaving Barbosa (eight points, including a pair of threes) as the lone reserve besides Frye (who may as well be a starter) to contribute much of anything.

I've gone nearly 700 words without mentioning the game's obvious headlines--the return of Brandon Roy and Aldridge's offensive outburst--in part to make the point that the Blazers' defense deserved at least equal billing. Still, I don't want to diminish the importance of those two factors entirely. Roy's unexpected comeback, which did not leak until the final hour before the game, was a huge motivational lift for a Portland team that had been flat in Game Three and took the Rose Garden crowd to another level.

On the court, Roy was limited. He looked, at times, like a player who had gone nearly two weeks without any five-on-five action. That lack of conditioning was the reason McMillan initially was against bringing Roy back until at least Game Five. But Roy was persistent, the team's doctors cleared him, and McMillan relented after getting the go-ahead from GM Kevin Pritchard and owner Paul Allen on Saturday morning.

In basketball terms, Roy's return took some defensive attention away from Aldridge. He also largely replaced the struggling Rudy Fernandez in the rotation. Fernandez played nine minutes, all in the first half, and even that playing time might not have been there if not for Dante Cunningham missing the game with a stomach virus, forcing the Blazers to go small in the first half. Roy didn't score all that much--10 points on as many shot attempts--but his fourth-quarter makes were critical. His three with 4:57 left made it a two-possession game, and Phoenix would never again have the ball with the chance to tie or take the lead. Roy also hit a pullup just before the two-minute mark.

For his part, Aldridge was sensational. He scored a game-high 31 points on 11-of-19 shooting, got to the free throw line 12 times and grabbed 11 rebounds. The biggest change was Aldridge spent more time facing up as opposed to shooting fadeaway jumpers out of the post. He also operated more quickly instead of waiting for the Phoenix double-team to come before making a decision. The decisiveness helped Aldridge get to the basket and draw fouls.

When the Suns did double, Portland attacked it more effectively by swinging the ball to Camby or Miller in the middle of the floor and quickly attacking the overloaded weak side. A telling stat was Camby's five assists, the most he's ever had in a playoff game. (Meanwhile, Frye went from four assists in a similar role dishing to Richardson in Game Three to just one in Game Four. This is perhaps the first series in NBA history were center assists are a key indicator.) Miller was able to attack the rim and make 10 trips to the free throw line himself, scoring 15 points and handing out eight assists.

While McMillan shrunk his rotation after halftime (Martell Webster, the eighth man, played just four minutes), the players who did take the floor were all productive. Jerryd Bayless responded well to replacing Fernandez as the starting shooting guard, scoring 11 points and handing out six assists and helping get the Blazers off to stronger starts in the first and third quarters. And the ageless Howard did yeoman's work off the bench, scoring eight points and grabbing seven boards. Portland was +7 in his 18 minutes of action.

As the series returns to Phoenix for Game Five, the Suns still hold home-court advantage and can't feel all that bad about where they stand. Losing by nine in an emotional game on the road without the benefit of many favorable whistles down the stretch (a flagrant foul called against Frye being the most egregious) isn't exactly cause for panic. Still, we have a series on our hands, and that's a change from where things apparently stood two nights ago. With Roy in the lineup and a better plan for handling the pick-and-roll, the Blazers have a legitimate chance.

G3: Portland 96, Phoenix 87 (Tied 2-2)
PHX  27  23  22  15 - 87
POR  26  28  20  22 - 96
PHX          Pace  oRTG  eFG%  oREB% FT/FGA  TO%  TCHS
First Quarter  23  117.8  .543  .182  .087  .087  5.66
Second Quarter 22  104.3  .594  .000  .250  .181  3.57
Third Quarter  20  110.7  .429  .231  .190  .000  4.64
Fourth Quarter 20   75.3  .313  .250  .313  .301  3.32
------------------------------------------------------
FIRST HALF     45  111.2  .564  .105  .154  .133  4.62
SECOND HALF    40   93.0  .378  .250  .243  .076  3.94
------------------------------------------------------
FINAL          85  102.7  .474  .175  .197  .142  4.30
======================================================
POR          Pace  oRTG  eFG%  oREB% FT/FGA  TO%  TCHS
First Quarter  23  113.4  .543  .111  .043  .044  6.56
Second Quarter 22  127.0  .500  .400  .333  .136  5.32
Third Quarter  20  100.6  .400  .300  .200  .101  5.55
Fourth Quarter 20  110.5  .433  .200  .600  .050  4.51
------------------------------------------------------
FIRST HALF     45  120.1  .523  .292  .182  .089  5.94
SECOND HALF    40  105.6  .414  .238  .371  .037  4.97
------------------------------------------------------
FINAL          85  113.3  .475  .273  .266  .083  5.49
======================================================

Follow Kevin on Twitter at @kpelton.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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